The Inventor's Dilemma: a Review

9/15/2015
Biography author: David Gerber
Reviewer: Manuel GaetÁn, PhD
The Inventor's Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber. Yale University Press, 424 pp., $38.00


Today's readers may not even have heard of Heinz Joseph Gerber (1924-1996), an inventor who reshaped the processes of manufacturing of apparel and a wide range of other products, and prepared them for the computer age. His brilliant achievement as "the father of automation" led to his being awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1994.

As the publisher of Apparel's predecessor, Bobbin, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been a personal friend of Joe's, having worked with him at several levels: as my customer, advertiser, exhibitor, and finally having been invited to serve on his Gerber Garment Technology Board of Directors.

Now others will be able to appreciate Joe Gerber's innovative brilliance through this important new biography written by his son, David Gerber. The book adds to the legacy of this amazing man, and reviewing it has been a delightful task because I have come to know Joe now as I never did, and admire him all the more.

David has gone out of his way to be as objective as possible while writing about his father. The book is detailed, comprehensive, and relevant. He supports every claim made for Joe's achievement with others' views and with facts derived from hundreds of interviews and published and unpublished written sources.

The book chronicles Joe's childhood in Vienna, up to and following the Nazi takeover in 1938, in which his childish inventiveness and creativity set the framework for what was to come. David exhaustively researched his family's background and adorns this book with moving stories of their struggles and successes. His descriptive style makes for interesting reading, and he offers vivid detail about Joe's dramatic escape to the United States with his mother.

In a crucial passage, David describes Joe's first invention, The Variable Scale, when he was an undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — an invention involving an elastic pajama waistband. The product that resulted gave birth to the Gerber company.

David also describes how Joe's method was reminiscent of 19th century "independent" inventors, notably Thomas Alva Edison. Joe's approach was to look at systems and not their independent components.  Joe once threw in the trashcan a marketing consultant's report on the potential market for the GERBERcutter cloth-cutting machine, now in the Smithsonian. The consultants looked only at the cutting room, and not at the entire manufacturing process, and predicted potential sales of two cutters.

As David explains, the apparel industry was ripe for his father's ideas because it was a technically backwards industry, highly atomized without the resources required to invest in automation. He also demonstrates that Joe's impact went way beyond just the apparel industry:

"Although he never used a personal computer in his life, Joe Gerber rethought entire systems of design and manufacturing for the computer era. He reshaped the processes of manufacturing many of the products that influence our everyday lives: the clothes, shoes, and eyeglasses we wear; the machines (cars, planes, ships) that transport us; the maps and the signs that point our way; the books and newspapers we read; the circuitry behind the covers of our electronic gadgets; and the color television screens and billboards we view."

Most inventors are not known for their business acumen. But David, an attorney who served on Gerber's Board of Directors, was close enough to the business to know that at the time of his father's death in 1996, the firm had grown from a $3,000 investment into an enterprise with annual sales of $360 million and a surplus of liquid assets used to acquire businesses annually generating another $240 million.

David describes Joe's innovation philosophy as not just filling gaps, but creating new gaps to fill. The book's seven full chapters on the apparel industry in the 1960s and 1970s were particularly interesting to me, as they discuss many historical events with which I was familiar.

I joined Bobbin as its editor in 1970, and served on the advisory board of RPI's School of Engineering at the time Joe served on the board of trustees. It was inevitable that Joe's path and mine would intersect. He became the largest Bobbin Show exhibitor for many years, and one of the magazine's largest advertisers. His persona was such that we developed an instant chemistry that lasted a lifetime.

Union opposition to the GERBERcutter, with all its ramifications, is well-documented. Joe's strategy of dealing with union opposition to automation is noteworthy in light of the role that imports from low-wage countries played. In the end, Joe's position prevailed, as evidenced by a 1994 note from union leader Jay Mazur, who saw Joe's "advanced apparel technology as one of the keys to maintaining a domestic apparel industry based on good and productive jobs."

The Joe Gerber I knew was not only a modern-day Edison, but our industry's most effective spokesperson about technology's impact on apparel manufacture, and how the industry is being saved. He put a human face on the abstract concept of high technology, and gave hope to the industry. David Gerber's book conveys this in a masterful and deeply thorough way.


Manuel GaetÁn, Ph.D., is president and CEO of MGR Enterprises LLC and the former publisher of Bobbin Magazine, now known as Apparel Magazine.


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